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How to Be Anti-Racist

The Savvy Psychologist has 6 tips for being anti-racist, including why you shouldn’t claim to be color blind and why white people should actually have a racial identity.

By
Ellen Hendriksen, PhD
5-minute read
Episode #58

Big thanks to Listener Crystal Allen from New York, who wrote in asking about how to handle racist interactions.  

On last week's podcast, we covered 6 tips to deal with microaggressions - unintentional but hurtful comments or actions. This week we’ll talk about what to do if you accidentally open your mouth and insert your foot. Despite our best intentions, we all have, and we all will. Of course we’re not going to solve such a complex problem in a 10-minute podcast, but here are 6 tips for white individuals to approach the issue of racism.

If you missed last week’s episode, How to Deal with Racism, here’s a quick recap: microaggressions are unintended discrimination, like complimenting an Asian-American individual on his English, asking a mixed-race person, “What are you?,” crossing the street when you see a minority man walking your way, or calling anyone “exotic.”

Some microaggessions are particularly versatile: for example, “I’m not racist—I have [insert minority group here] friends,” or “You’re not like most [insert minority group here] people.”

So, no matter your color, next time you find yourself as the accidental microaggressor, think of the following:

Tip #1: Don’t Get Defensive

You’ll just dig yourself in deeper, which will make things more awkward and make you look like a jerk.  Everyone makes honest mistakes, but defending a mistake, especially if it hurt someone’s feelings, takes it to the next level, where you don’t want to go.

For example, if you get an Asian-American colleague mixed up with another Asian-American colleague, don’t try to make it right by saying “Sorry, you two look so much alike.”  That’s not only defensive, it also blames them and plays into stereotypes, which therefore makes you look racist rather than just unobservant. Plus, they probably don’t even look alike at all.

So instead, apologize. Just say “I’m really sorry about that,” or “I’m so sorry that happened,” or anything else you would say if you hurt the feelings of a friend.

Tip #2: Don’t Say "I'm Color Blind" or "I Just See Everyone as Human"

Even if you wish this were true, there are 3 reasons not to say this:

A. It’s not true. You’re not color blind. Racism is both an individual and a societal issue, but they’re not mutually exclusive. You can’t purify yourself of racism while living in this world. It’s like trying to remain clean while walking straight through a mud puddle.

I had an acquaintance in college who claimed she was so color blind the she could have an entire conversation with someone and come away having no idea what the person’s race was. She was well-intentioned, but it sent the message that race was something to be ignored. Which brings us to the second reason not to say you’re color blind...

B. People are usually proud of their heritage or ethnicity and more often than not, it’s part of their very identity. To willfully ignore that is to ignore an important part of who they are.

C. Claiming to be color blind minimizes the problem of racism and the fact that people of color deal with it every single day. It’s not something that can be solved by collectively covering our eyes. On the contrary, if we’re ever going to move forward, it will be with eyes wide open.

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Medical Disclaimer
All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own mental health provider. Please consult a licensed mental health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ellen Hendriksen, PhD

Dr. Ellen Hendriksen is a clinical psychologist at Boston University's Center for Anxiety and Related Disorders (CARD). She earned her Ph.D. at UCLA and completed her training at Harvard Medical School. Her scientifically-based, zero-judgment approach is regularly featured in Psychology Today, Scientific American, The Huffington Post, and many other media outlets.